By Marc Priestley
With my interest and fascination in EV’s having soared over the last year, largely due to the inaugural season of the FIA Formula E Championship drawing ever closer, I felt it was crazy I hadn’t yet actually driven such a car. The kind people at revolutionary American car company, Tesla, recently threw one my way for a couple of days to take to Donington Park’s Formula E test in July.
Tesla didn’t just give me any old car either. I turned up to their West London showroom, nestled inconspicuously amongst the boutique clothing and swanky underwear stores of the Westfield Shopping Centre and drove away in the all-singing-all-dancing, top-of-the-range Model S P85+.
I’d heard all manner of things about driving electric cars, not least from the elite field of Formula E racers themselves, but really felt I should try it for myself in order to be able to comment accurately about the technical side of the new sport.
Formula One too, with their hybrid cars of 2014, have changed the experience of those behind the wheel in terms of energy recovery and deployment and I hoped the Tesla might help me explain exactly what’s involved.
The P85+ has the biggest motor in the company’s range, at 350kw, (the FE motor is rated as 200kw) offering the equivalent of over 450bhp and yet still has the capability to keep going for 300 miles on a single charge of its 85kwh battery (FE battery rated as 30kwh). The 0-60 figure is 4.2 seconds and of course all this is done without any harmful emissions from the tailpipe…in fact it doesn’t even have a tailpipe (nor does the FE car).
Imagine the huge chunk of lap time that would bring them. Imagine how stable it would be through the corners without the higher CofG. Imagine the aerodynamic benefits of being able to design a car without the space restrictions of the bulky engine and gearbox…
That’s exactly what the guys sketching out the original Model S had to play with. As a result they’ve delivered a car that has most of its weight no higher than the top of the tyres and handles accordingly. The lightweight aluminium chassis forms an aero-efficient shape, but instead of screaming “Quirky electric car!”, as many of the other sustainably powered vehicles on the market seem to like to do, it just glides inconspicuously by like a confident and classy power-dresser.
Inside the car there’s space. Lots of space. The missing engine and gearbox mean everything can be reconfigured inside and no matter in which of the seven seats (yes SEVEN) you sit, none feel cramped for what they’re intended. The extra two fold down child seats in the back don’t come as a trade off for luggage space either, as the traditional ‘engine bay’ can hold a number of decent sized bags or a set of golf clubs.
Aside from its Tardis-like feel, the interior’s dominated by the impressively huge, central touchscreen display from which all-things-electronic are almost infinitely configurable. Like any high end racing car, the control systems can all be tailored and tweaked to optimise performance, drivability, comfort and here of course, energy management.
The car’s operating system is permanently ‘connected’ through 3G networks and Tesla can send out software updates, much like you get on your iPhone, to add new features and functionality at no extra cost. Consider this: if you buy a new Mercedes, Jaguar or BMW, the car is what it is on the day you hand over your money and will be forever more, not here, it’s a constantly evolving product…much like a racing car I guess. Hear me explain a bit more about that here.
The Life Electric
In both Formula One and now Formula E, the use of available electrical power is crucial to getting the most from the car. In the Tesla, like it’s racing cousins, the way the energy’s both harvested and deployed can be manipulated to suit your needs. We’ll hear more and more about the term ‘Regen’ as the FIA Formula E Championship gets going, but it’s the rate at which the motor/generator unit (MGU) harvests electrical energy and feeds it back into the battery when the car’s not powering forward or, ‘on throttle’, and by adjusting the switch on the steering wheels of the racing cars or on the touchscreen in the Tesla, battery life can be greatly extended.
Setting the ‘regen’ to its standard rate, means the moment you lift off the accelerator, the car slows more aggressively than I’m used to, but not uncomfortably so, as the motor switches to its generator mode. There’s something very satisfying about seeing the energy usage gauge go from red into green and from a driving perspective it means you barely need to use the brakes. In F1 this year, cars now have much smaller rear brakes on the car with their hybrid systems onboard and this is exactly why. In the Tesla it means brakes should last a very long time indeed.
The graphic display on the Model S constantly gives a stream of data to show the efficiency of your driving style and it makes a surprising difference to the way you end up using the vehicle. If you want to have fun in this car, it won’t disappoint as the acceleration, particularly off the line, is genuinely phenomenal. But if you want to go in comfort for over 300 miles before recharging it, the tools are all there at your disposal to do that too.
Both F1 and FE drivers, along with their teams, are putting a lot of work in to learning the intricacies of optimising the way they generate energy, at which points in the race and indeed at which points around each lap they use the various ‘regen’ settings available. In motorsport it could mean the difference between staying out for a crucial extra lap before pitting in the race, opening up different strategic options, so could well be a big differentiator. In the case of the Model S, ‘regen’ and the subsequent deployment of that energy can make a massive difference to range before needing a recharge.
The Evolving EV
The last time I drove an EV was actually when I worked at McLaren. Before we moved into the big shiny MTC building, the company was sprawled out across an industrial estate in Woking in the UK and we used a battered old electric milk float to cart things around the site. The instant torque from the motor was evident then too, jolting it immediately forward like a dodgem car when you hit the throttle, but instead of peaking at 5mph, the Tesla and the Formula E cars just keep on going at staggering speeds. When I first got into the Model S and put my foot down, I was genuinely stunned, the acceleration is a seriously mind blowing experience.
This car has everything you’d expect from a luxury, executive class vehicle, but so much more too. It’s probably the fastest thing I’ve ever driven from 0-40mph, yet it costs virtually nothing to run, both of which made me giggle a bit every time I got in it.
It’s not cheap, ranging from around £50k to the all singing, all dancing, £95k version I had, but equally not outrageous for what you get. If you’re in the market for that level of car, the Model S is a genuine alternative to the industry’s established big players and sets a new benchmark in many areas of car design, electric or otherwise.
The range and acceleration of the Tesla Model S P85 are truly impressive and most people can have loads of fun in it and still go nowhere near emptying the battery in a day before plugging it back in at night. Some other electric cars are far more modest in their stats, meaning they’re only suitable as small ‘runarounds’, but what F1 and now Formula E are hoping to do by placing the technology into a highly competitive sporting arena, is accelerate the development of electric motors, electronic control systems and crucially, battery technology to a far more advanced level.
If this happens as expected, the idea of ‘range anxiety’ could be a thing of the past and we could all benefit as EV’s move more towards the norm in city centres.
Tesla too, recently took a huge decision for the good of us all, by releasing all of its technology patents to the wider world. They hope by doing so, the electric vehicle market as a whole will benefit, taking the groundbreaking tech from the Model S and associated ancillaries like the company’s Superchargers and developing it further without the commercial and legal restrictions they’d otherwise face. The Model S is a great car, not just a great electric car. Along with the Spark-Renault Formula E, it could be one of the most important cars for the future of sustainable mobility and one we might look back on one day as representing a turning point in changing people’s minds.
Marc Priestley is a Formula One & Formula E writer & broadcaster. Follow him on Twitter: @f1elvis